When I was in third grade, my class did a unit on space and astronomy and NASA. It was the coolest. We got to go to the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium and eat freeze-dried ice cream, and we also got to do an experiment where we planted a bunch of tomato seeds that had been in space and a bunch of tomato seeds that had not been in space, to find out which ones would grow better. (I assumed that the tomato seeds that had been in space would grow into crazy bionic alien plants, but surprisingly, they just turned out to be a little less likely to sprout than the non-space seeds.) My hero that year was Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, and I wanted to be an astronaut just like her.
As it turns out, I’m not an astronaut. I changed my mind about career paths multiple times after third grade. But in thinking back, I do feel happy about the fact that I had a dream. I also feel happy that the dream wasn’t a total fantasy—rather, it was directly connected to something cool I was doing and learning in school, something I could continue pursuing if I chose to. I knew that if you wanted to be an astronaut, you should keep learning about science, including astronomy, and also math. A third grader’s version of a career map, basically.
Ok, so positive thoughts about choosing and pursuing a career: awesome. Now let’s talk about something else I was also interested in around that same time—something with a very different kind of message: M.A.S.H.
Not M.A.S.H. the television show, which apparently is actually spelled M*A*S*H (and which I have never seen), but rather M.A.S.H. the game, the one that you too may have played in elementary or middle school, the one that’s supposed to tell you about your future.
M.A.S.H., as I have recently discovered, has a Wikipedia page that you can check out if you want, but here is my personal memory of how my friends and I played it:
- One person is chosen to have their fortune told. Let’s say that person is me.
- My friend writes “M.A.S.H.” at the top of a piece of paper. M.A.S.H. stands for mansion, apartment, shack, house. It’s a list of possible places I might live when I grow up. We also sometimes played “S.M.A.S.H.,” where the first “S” stands for sewer.
- My friend scatters some categories throughout the page: “marry” (who I’ll marry when I grow up), “kids” (how many kids I’ll have), “live” (what city/country I’ll live in), and “car” (what kind of car I’ll drive). Additional optional categories include “job” and “pet”.
- My friend writes down four or five possibilities in each category. I can make suggestions, but she gets to write down whatever she wants. Typically she will write down some desirable and some undesirable items in each category.
- A number, usually somewhere between 3 and 10, is randomly chosen; let’s say it’s 5. My friend goes through the entire page, crossing off every fifth item, again and again until there’s only one item left in each category, and circles what’s left.
- The circled items are a map of my future life.
My friends and I spent many hours playing this game in elementary and early middle school, trading off turns. When I was in third grade, my M.A.S.H. sheet might have looked something like this:
M.A.S.H. is typically thought of as a sort of harmless, goofy fortune-telling game. And I can see the argument for that. But the more I think about M.A.S.H., the more I really don’t like it.
To begin with, M.A.S.H. is implicitly based upon the philosophy that your life will just “happen” to turn out a certain way. This is a somewhat subtle element of the game, but I think it’s a critical one. The way it’s played, it doesn’t matter who you want to marry (if anyone), or what type of career you want to have, or where you want to live. In M.A.S.H. you have no control over any of this: whatever happens in your life is due to blind chance. (You might end up living in a mansion and you might end up living in a shack: who knows? Let’s just see what happens!)
For the record, I believe that our circumstances as adults do often involve a substantial element of luck: not all children in this world have the same opportunities, unfortunately. But there’s a big difference between recognizing the existence of inequality and believing that there’s no point in having goals or trying to pursue them.
So to begin with, I’m not thrilled with the general life philosophy that M.A.S.H. seems to espouse. However, my main motivation for writing about M.A.S.H. is that it is a game that is largely, almost exclusively, played by girls. If you think I am wrong about this, then please let me know in the comments. But in my experience it is, for all practical purposes, a girls’ game. And M.A.S.H.’s subtle philosophy—that your life is predetermined, that your future will be decided by who you happen to meet and marry and what job you happen to accidentally fall into—takes on an additional significance when only a specific subset of children are playing M.A.S.H. My male classmates in third grade also heard the message that they could be astronauts someday, but the message they perhaps didn’t hear as much was that whether or not they actually ended up as astronauts would be the result of random chance.
I will also throw out there that “marry” is by far the most important category in the game: is it is always the first one written down (other than “M.A.S.H.” itself), and honestly it’s really the primary focus of the whole experience. I would always try to get my friend to write down the name of whoever I had a secret crush on at the time, and I would feel truly excited and fluttery if that person’s name was circled at the end. The other categories were somewhat less interesting: I didn’t really know which cars were better than other cars (and still don’t), and “job” was an afterthought if it was included at all.
To be sure, who you will eventually marry, or partner with—if anyone—is an important life question. But I’d be a little uncomfortable saying that it’s definitely more important than other facets of your life like your career, or that it’s something that’s important to focus on when you’re nine years old. And I’m especially uncomfortable if it’s only girls who are internalizing this sense of its heightened importance.
My first impulse is to blame M.A.S.H., or whoever invented it in the first place, for attempting to fool little girls into thinking that they don’t have control over their dreams and futures and that life is all about who you marry.
But as I reflect upon it more, I’m not sure that M.A.S.H. itself is really the problem. Asking about the origin of M.A.S.H. is kind of a chicken-and-egg question: which came first: the idea that girls don’t have control over their futures, or a game suggesting that girls don’t have control over their futures? I suspect that M.A.S.H. may just be reflective of pervasive, insidious messages that nine-year-old girls have already started to pick up from the environment.
Fortunately, there are a lot of awesome role models out there, girls and women who are actively pursuing big dreams rather than sitting back and waiting for fate to take over, and whose lives and examples therefore counteract the M.A.S.H. philosophy. Like Sally Ride. Like Misty Copeland. Like Amy Poehler (and Leslie Knope, because they’re basically the same person, right?). Like J. K. Rowling (and Hermione Granger, for that matter). Like Malala Yousafzai, a girl whose own dream is to empower other girls to take control of their futures through education. Like Condoleezza Rice, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, regardless of how you feel about any of their politics.
To be clear, I don’t blame my nine-year-old self, or any child, for playing M.A.S.H.—it’s honestly a lot of fun, and everyone is curious about their future. But it brings up some important issues about gender, career, and goal-setting that are important to talk about. M.A.S.H. may be just a game, but the ways in which we think about our futures and our dreams as children, and as adults, have a powerful impact on who we become.
What do you think—am I being too hard on M.A.S.H.?
Also, I would LOVE to hear about your experience with this game (or lack thereof):
Is it really just a girls’ game? Is it played outside the U.S.? Do you have any other thoughts about it?